By Jackie Rainford Corcoran
Explore Big Sky Health Columnist

Genetically modified organisms are increasingly showing up in our food supply, but most of us don’t understand what that means.

A GMO (aka GM or GE) is not actually an ingredient, it’s a technology that transfers a specific gene from one organism into another. That sounds a lot like cross-pollination or crossbreeding, which happens naturally between plants and animals, and humans have been purposefully creating new plant varieties and animal breeds for thousands of years.

There is a big difference though. Cross-pollinating and crossbreeding can only happen between plants and animals that are sexually compatible. GMO technology combines the genes of species that would never breed naturally.

Here are some examples: strawberries and tomatoes injected with fish genes to protect the fruit from freezing; dairy cows injected with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH (or rBST) to increase milk production; rice injected with human genes to produce pharmaceuticals.

Companies selling GMO products claim there are good reasons for using them, including weed and pest resistance, drought resistance, nutritional enhancement, better crop yields, and lowered food costs to the consumer. However, anti-GMO organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, refute each of these claims and often state that the opposite is true.

GMO crops have been sold for human consumption in the U.S. since 1994. There are only eight GMO food crops grown here: corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya and squash. While GMO wheat is not currently legal to grow, a GMO wheat crop was found in Oregon in 2013 and Huntley, Mont. in 2014. Reportedly, this is a result of tests done by Monsanto – a leading GMO company – between 1998 and 2005.

Eight genetically modified foods doesn’t seem like much but according to the Monsanto website, “70 to 80 percent of the food on grocery store shelves likely contain processed ingredients from GM plants.” This is not surprising since an estimated 93 percent of soybeans and 70 percent of corn commercially grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. These two crops are staples in many of our processed foods like cereal, crackers and baby food.

The animals we eat aren’t altered using GMO technology yet – one species of salmon awaiting FDA approval has been genetically engineered with a growth hormone that allows it to grow larger – but many are raised on GMO feed or injected with GMO hormones. GMOs also show up in vitamins, human insulin and enzymes used in cheese.

GMOs are still fairly new to our food supply and there are concerns about their safety. Test results on their effects on animals, soil and the water are inconclusive. While companies profiting from them want us to believe they are perfectly fine for the earth and our bodies, others are not convinced. For me, inconclusive evidence is a good reason to avoid GMOs as much as possible until I’m certain that they’re not harmful.

If you want to avoid eating genetically engineered foods there is a way. Buy food from local, sustainable farmers and look for “Organic” and “Non-GMO” labels. But this only goes so far. If you’re eating out, chances are there is no way of knowing what contains GMOs – yet.

Stay tuned for my next article that will take a closer look at GMO labeling.

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, public speaker and health activist. Contact her at jackie@thetahealth.org, or find more at thetahealth.org.